The Half-Shekel and Finishing Touches

Exodus 30:11-38

Our portion opens with God’s instructions on how to take a census. Rather than count the people straight up, He tells Moses that any time the number of people in the nation is needed, he should collect half a shekel (a biblical unit of weight, the inspiration for today’s Israeli currency) from each individual. The total number of half-shekels will represent the number of people in the nation. These half-shekels will then go towards the service of God in the Tabernacle. Counting the people this way will help atone for them and prevent them from perishing in plague.


God then tells Moses about the final pieces of the Tabernacle. First is the laver, a copper basin for ritual washing. God instructs the priests to wash their hands and feet in it before performing any services.


Next He tells Moses to prepare the oil for anointing. With it, Moses is to anoint the vessels of the Tabernacle along with the Tabernacle itself and Aaron and his sons in the service of God. No other person is permitted to prepare a similar composition for personal use, nor may anyone use the oil of the Tabernacle for any other purpose.


Finally, God gives Moses the precise recipe for the incense to be burned in the Tabernacle, likewise forbidding any profane use of the same combination.


The Israel Bible discusses the significance of the half-shekel contribution. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, it signifies that merely existing within society is not enough for a person to “count”. To really be considered part of the community, a person must contribute of himself.


Virtual Classroom Discussion

Why do you think the instructions for the Tabernacle construction are interrupted with the laws of census-taking? What could be the significance of the juxtaposition of these passages?

Comments ( 10 )

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  • Herman Arentsen

    This might be an illustration of the proverb: “ora et labora” (=pray and work) Give and know where you are giving for. You only belong to a kehilla when you give something of yourself to it, be it money of your labour..

  • Angela B

    Thank you all, I agree mostly with Jesse, Kevin and SueJean in regard to the answer to the moderator question, only that I would add that this was not an atonement tax, it was an atonement offering for each individual. Also, the census was essential to help avoid any evasion of this offering; Yahweh wanted each individual to be covered for their sin and also be a partner in the process.

  • Kevin

    I think a principle that we see here is that we are not just a “number” to God. This half shekel offering allowed the people to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, while maintaining their individuality.

    • SueJean Heinz

      This is the principle that our Torah teacher emphasizes each year. I like the idea that we’re not “just a number” to Elohim.

      On a more practical note, counting half-shekels would definitely remove a lot of errors as trying to “count noses” in a group of this size would be a nightmare as no one would manage to sit still long enough to get it all done. Just my own silly little thinking…..

      • John Mangum

        God ALREADY knew the number as His angels have no problems counting.

  • Thank you for all the really insightful comments! I really like the ideas that were brought up here and the connections between these two seemingly not so connected concepts.

  • Magda

    Something that stood out particularly in this part of the parashat is the interpretation /commentary of Stone edition Tanach of the half a coin/ half-shekel: it “alludes to the concept that no Jew is complete unless he joins with others; alone, he is only ‘half’ of his full potential”. I believe this applies to all believers in/ worshippers of the God of Israel. We are supposed to reach our potential within the community of worshippers of the God of Israel in service and living a life of obedience to Him. This is in stark contrast with the secular/ Greek worldview where the focus is on the individual and his or her striving to reach the ‘top’. Everybody for him or herself. The census refers to the community of Jews/ believers/ servants of the God of Israel and the Tabernacle to the how and where of their service to Him.

  • Diana Brown

    Sacrifice and Obedience are the reasons I think this portion shows up here. That is the definition of LOVE in the Lord’s eyes. When we sacrifice and obey, He is free to lavish us with blessings all along life’s journey.
    Here, He wants to protect His People from the plague so He lays out the proper foundation for preservation from illness. He also is reminding them a ransom must be paid for atonement. This continues throughout all our generations.

  • Kenneth Osterman

    The integral import of the Tabernacle is the Presence of the Lord among the people. As Adam, when in perfection, walked with God, here we see the Tabernacle picturing a means of restoring relationship between God and a people. The prime means of this relationship is the yearly Day of Atonement. יוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים
    God instructs Moses to take a count and assign a ransom כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַיהוָה (value to each life). In reality, this ransom of money is not sufficient for life is always of greater value than any amount of money but it points out to the faithful remnant the need for the yearly Day of Atonement.
    The Tabernacle and the Temple all exhibit aspects of the great day of atonement when the Lord makes a new covenant and remembers their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:30-33) the God has his sanctuary among the nations.
    Ezekiel 37:26-28 And the nations shall know that I am the LORD that sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for ever.’

  • Jesse

    This entire chapter was about the holiness and preparation of God’s people. The bronze lager was for cleaning the priests before they entered the tabernacle. The anointing oil was for indicating the things that were holy to God. And the incense was forbidden to be replicated because even the smell was holy. Therefore, we should find it as no surprise that the people paid an atonement tax to indicate that under the lordship of God, they would also be set apart.

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